Henry McLeish’s resignation as First Minister

  • The Observer, Sunday 27 January 2002 01.46 GMT
  • Article history
  • There is a school of newspaper writers who believe in adding culinary detail in order to satisfy the dictum of the great American journalist A.J. Liebling, who said that the first duty of the reporter was to convince the reader that he was there.

    In the heyday of the Sunday Times Insight team, a great deal of manpower was expended on what was called the theory of corroborative detail. A friend recalls phoning the butler at the Hirsel in 1963 to establish just what Alec Douglas-Home had for breakfast on the morning he received the call to lead the Tories.

    Sometimes, of course, such detail has the opposite effect if it is speculative, since it is likely to convince the reader that the reporter was not there. Osama bin Laden may well like to eat grilled mutton under the stars, but we really can’t be sure: there is no butler to phone.

    But we can have perfect confidence in Peter MacMahon’s entertaining account of the last days of Henry McLeish, serialised last week in the Scotsman. We learn than McLeish, on the day of his resignation, ate a meal of sausage roll, bri die and chips. He fortified himself with a stiff malt whisky before making his statement. Earlier he poured the chardonnay when his team, working furiously to avert disaster, sent out for fish and chips: how sophisticated we all are now.

    MacMahon, a respected political journalist who became the First Minister’s spin-doctor, blames McLeish’s secrecy for the débcle. Sometimes he was among the last to know as each new detail of the affair came leaking out. McLeish had spent his life giving stories to the press and thought that they were friends. As he now knows, they are about as friendly as the legendary demon bowler, Fred Spofforth, whose glower alone was enough to send batsmen into a paroxysm of nerves.

    The account of Henry’s demise is interesting also because it gives a vivid inside view of how a ministerial team of advisers works with its backs against the wall. And it casts light on the close relationship between the Tories and the Daily Mail and its sister papers. David McLetchie spun McLeish into trouble with their help and, at the end, Ross Finnie and other Ministers formed a phalanx round the First Minister as he left the chamber, to prevent any Tory shaking hands with him; McLetchie’s crocodile tears had been enough to bear.

    But Henry’s downfall was sealed not just because he got himself into a frightful guddle about his office expenses and his numerous sub-lets, but by his appearance on Question Time when he squirmed, fidgeted, passed his fingers under his collar and was unable to answer David Dimbleby’s simple question of how much money was involved. Alex Salmond came to his rescue, if somewhat patronisingly.

    Then another vignette: ‘That night, after a glass of wine with Dimbleby’, the First Minister’s team drove back to Edinburgh in almost complete silence. ‘McLeish knew it had been a very poor performance. There was no need to tell him.’

    Tragedy is too strong a word to describe what happened. Rather, Henry almost absent-mindedly allowed his office to slip away from him. But perhaps another detail tells the story: he carried his papers around in plastic bags. It is a vision which hardly inspires confidence in his administrative abilities.

    Perhaps, in the brutal way of things, Henry was found out: he simply wasn’t up to the job. I wish him a happier and more peaceful life on the back benches. But the task confronting Jack McConnell as he tries to restore confidence in the Executive is formidable. There is fierce hostility outside to the new regime, and to the new Parliament.

    Much of this is blind prejudice and gives rise to some stupid assertions. There was a particularly daft article in the Scotsman last week saying how much better the NHS was in England now that we had devolution in Scotland. It is not an argument that would wear well with my English colleagues, who are not only appalled by the state of their local conditions but think Scotland is in relative terms rolling in money.

    And, in terms of raw figures, Scotland already enjoys the European levels of funding to which Tony Blair has committed himself for the UK. But money isn’t the only thing. How it is used, and the quality of the planning that lies behind its use, are every bit as important. Within Scotland, Glasgow hasn’t had its fair share. The new formula devised by Sir John Arbuthnott’s review group should begin to correct this imbalance, but it has been 20 years in the making. To blame our infant Parliament for these troubles is silly.

    Although A.J. Liebling also said that journalism is history shot on the wing, he was not claiming the licence to play fast and loose with the facts. In the end, Henry’s troubles arose not so much from hostile spin, although it was pretty vicious, as from his failure to confront the truth and share it with his closest advisers.